I’ve come across a series of articles by Francis Beckwith on why intelligent design (ID) – so often promoted as an alternative to mechanistic evolutionism – shares with evolutionism a philosophical materialism that runs counter to the Catholic view of the universe and creation grounded in the understanding of nature and final causes developed by St Thomas Aquinas.
In both intelligent design and evolutionism, the mechanics of evolution are assumed – biological change over time as species adapt to different environments through a series of beneficial mutations that are passed on to future generations. Intelligent design sees certain ‘gaps’ that need to be filled by an intelligent agent. Beckwith quotes Brad Gregory as pointing out that this ‘god of the gaps’ argument – used by ID proponents and scoffed at by evolutionists – assumes normally autonomous mechanstic processes devoid of God’s influence. Thus, ID shares important assumptions with the new atheists, and gives ground to them every time there is a new scientific discovery.
The Thomistic universe, following Aristotle, distinguishes between four causes of change: efficient, material, formal, and final. Imagine that I’m setting out to make an evening gown for my granddaughter to wear to a school dance. The fabric, zip and trimmings are the material cause. I am the efficient cause. The pattern I use is the formal cause. And the final cause is the reason for my actions: to clothe my granddaughter in elegance and finery at the school dance. Beckworth uses the human lung as an example: the organic material making up the lung is its material cause; its formal cause is the nature of the being within which the lung is found (it follows the pattern for human lungs); its efficient cause is the parents of that body; and its final cause is respiration.
For the Thomist, design is immanent in the universe, and thus even an evolutionary account of the development of life requires a universe teeming with final causes. What is a final cause? It is a thing’s purpose or end. So, for example, even if one can provide an evolutionary account of the development of the human lungs without any recourse to an intervening intelligence, there remains the fact that the lungs develop for a particular purpose, the exchange of oxygen for the sake of the organism’s survival. This fact, of course, does not contravene the discoveries of modern biology. And neither does it mean that final causes should be inserted into scientific theories. All it means is that the deliverances of the sciences—even if they need no intelligent intervention to be complete—can never be nature’s whole story. For the Thomist, and for many other Christians, law and chance do not eliminate design. “Design” does not replace efficient and material causes in nature when the latter two appear impotent as explanations (i.e., Dembski’s “gaps”). Rather, efficient and material causes require final causes. For example, my belief that the lungs’ purpose is to exchange oxygen is not falsified simply because I can provide an exhaustive scientific account of the natural processes of the evolution and development of the lungs. This is because final causality is not a substitute for a scientific account of nature. For the natural processes—even if they are complete and exhaustive–seem to work for an end, and that end is its final cause.